For thirty-four years Richard Charles Martinez kept a journal dealing with his experiences as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He recently published the journal as a memoir called Grunts Don’t Cry (Village Books, 191 pp. $12.95, paper).
Martinez writes in a style that conveys awe regarding what he saw and did. At times, he also projects an air of innocence that lifts him above the moment.
Becoming part of the war machine practically without warning, Martinez says, “It took about five months from the time I walked into the induction center till I set foot in Vietnam. It’s hard to believe it even now.” Actually, it took five months and two days for him to be inducted, complete basic and advance individual training, thirty days leave, and shipping out to Vietnam.
A twenty-year-old college dropout draftee, five-ten, and a hundred twenty-five pounds, Martinez found infantry duty difficult, but he performed as demanded. One day, weighed down with extra gear and breaking trail on a flank, he “passed out for a few seconds or longer,” he says. “When I came to, the file to my left was still moving and nobody noticed that I had gone down. So I walked fast to catch up and moved back into the file with my squad.”
Martinez served with the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division stationed at Quan Loi and Lai Khe in 1968-69. He fought alongside Dave Wright who wrote a warm memoir called Not Enough Tears, from which Martinez quotes extensively when describing the most challenging actions of their unit.
“The first six months that I was in country, I seem to recall that on every operation we made some kind of contact with the enemy,” Martinez writes. “Either we ambushed the enemy or they ambushed us. This meant that we either had friendly KIA or WIA or we killed the enemy.” After three months, Martinez became an M-60 machine-gunner and a weapons squad leader.
He frequently reminds the reader about losing his memory. “There were many operations but I can’t remember them all,” he says. “The only operations that I remember were because someone got killed or wounded or something else that triggered my memory.” Later he explains, “I don’t remember very much of this operation after we had lost so much. My platoon took the worst of it. There were 22 to 24 people wounded or killed.”
Regarding a morning when his company helicoptered into a fire support base that had been overrun the previous night, he says: “With all that I saw that day, my mind must have gone into overload. Sometime during this time my mind just shut down. I just can’t seem to remember much about the horror that I saw that day.”
Martinez does not hesitate to spell out the high degree of fear he felt throughout his tour. As a leader, however, concern for his men came first, a practice also displayed by Dave Wright.
Although Martinez does not say so directly, Wright and a Sergeant A-hoe appear to have been his role models. He cites their leadership skills several times. When a new “lifer” platoon sergeant failed to act at a critical moment, Martinez says, “Sergeant A-hoe ended up calling for a Dust-off. Sergeant A-hoe always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”
Fifteen pages of photographs help to bring to life many of the people mentioned in the text.
Near the end of the book, Martinez’s style shifts gears for four short chapters: “Sights, Smells, and Sounds;” “Medics;” “Friends;” and “Dying and Killing.” In those chapters, he summarizes his Vietnam War tour with definitive pronouncements about each topic.
Some conclusions sound self-evident, but considering them in context with what he wrote earlier, his words profoundly summarize a lifetime of thought. The shock of combat and its aftermath “stays with you forever,” he says, “in memories and nightmares.”
I appreciate everything he says in those chapters. I especially admire one paragraph:
“I have laughed and cried the hardest in my life while in Vietnam. I have been so scared I could hardly move. I have done things that I can’t even believe I was capable of doing. War changes the person you are. I’ve asked my sister and anyone else that knew me before Vietnam, how much have I changed? I really don’t know. I hope I changed for the better.”
Reading the works of Richard Charles Martinez and Dave Wright provides a distinct lesson regarding young men who faithfully served their nation despite reservations.